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Sep 27, 1999 09:39 PM

Italian vs. Italian-American

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I almost never go out for real Italian food in New York anymore. Too many crappy pastas and dull salads in overlit rooms with rickety tables and chairs drove me away from it.

That's why I was pleasantly suprised by Novità, on E. 22nd, a few nights ago. Despite a ridiculously attitudinal maitre d' for such a small place, the staff were able to take care of us for an early seating with no reservation. The room did little for me -- the standard yellow and white, etc. -- but we were put in a small room in the back with a banquette that was quite comfortable.

The surprise was the food. I had a perfect insalata mista -- just fresh arugula, lettuce, tomatoes, lovely textures, perfectly blended contrasts. My entree was also excellent -- hand rolled pasta in a lamb ragu. We had a nice Carmignano... the richness of sangiovese with just a hint of tannin from cabernet sauvignon.

But despite places like Novità, in New York, I'll take Italian-American over Italian anytime. It's not just that the rooms are dark and clubby, that they have comfortable booths (New York could take a lesson from Los Angeles about the value of booths), or amazing crusty old waiters and bartenders. It's the food that's incredible, and I don't think you can get the real thing anywhere outside New York City with the possible exception of Mateo in Westwood, California.

At a great Italian-American, such as Andy's Colonial Tavern in East Harlem, or Patsy's Restaurant on W. 56th, or Nicola Paone on W. 34th, you can get such incredible dishes as pork chops with vinegar peppers, chicken scapariello on the bone, spadini romano, veal chop francese, or linguini with white clam sauce that changes one's concept of what can be done with a fresh clam. You can get the best red sauces in the world. The veal chops are luxury itself. The hearty antipastos and crudités crush the diet-oriented competition at many a modern Northern Italian.

At many of these places (well, maybe not Nicola Paone -- let's hope they stay in business!) the menus have been updated and changed so that modern Northern Italian dishes are mixed in the classics Italian American dishes. Patsy's doesn't even list chicken scapariello on the menu anymore -- you have to ask for it, and if you don't specify on the bone then you will get overcooked white meat prepared for people with slimming on the brain. Tommaso's in Bensonhurst boasts that both an Italian-American menu and a modern Italian menu are available, but in fact they only have a mixture, and many of the dishes marked with stars as Tommaso's specials are actually attempts at new-style cooking such as veal cooked on a hot rock. Ignore that and order the osso buco or the outrageously great lasagne (again, not on the menu).

Am I the only one who's worried about the imminent death of Italian-American food in New York City? It's frightening how few people go into places like Caesar's on E. 34th, Rossini's on E. 38th, or Nicola Paone. The food's not great at the first two, but they are authentically old-style New York Italian, and all three are starving for dinner customers. I think people just don't want this kind of cuisine anymore, or they associate it with bad red-sauce meals they've had at tourist joints, or maybe they can't even tell what's real and what's not at the mixed-up menus at these places.

Even Marchì on E. 30th St., surely one of the most unusual dining experiences in New York if not always the tastiest (though much of it is good) is deserted these days. Andy's Colonial, which is hands-down the best Italian-American restaurant in New York City (disclosure: I have never been to Rao's), is lucky to have three tables full on a weekend evening. The elderly chef will retire soon, and with him is dying a culinary tradition.

I'm happy to go to places like Novità. I've had a couple of my greatest meals ever at Il Mulino. These are really different cuisines, and they're great ones. But why is modern Italian being lionized in New York over an incredible local cuisine -- perhaps the most authenticaly local cuisine here next to Jewish delicatessen food?

Go to your local Italian-American! Help keep dishes like pork chops with vinegar peppers alive!


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  1. This is an interesting posting, and I can't resist a reply. I was born in Italy (Napoli, but my mother is Sicilian), and I have lived here most of my life. I return to Italy when I can, and have friends and family there. As a southern Italian, I am not too crazy for the "northern Italian" food served in New YOrk. I also am put off by the attitude of snobbery that surrounds cucina toscana and other northern italian cuisines. You may think I am biased, but I always have found the food of the South of Italy infinitely more appealing. And since the Italian American food in New York is basically Neapolitan, I would rather have that -- even though I must say it often can be quite bad, a debased version of what I grew up with -- than most of the ridiculously overpriced northern food in New York restaurants. There are some good southern Italian places in New York City, though. I particularly like I Trulli, in Manhattan, which specializes in pugliese and other southern dishes, and Trattoria L'Incontro, an abruzzese restaurant in Astoria. Unfortunately I have not yet had any good Sicilian food in New York. Except what I cook myself!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Giorgio

      It is hard to find authentic cucina here. Manducatis in Long Island City is run by a family from Caserta and have a semi-private stash of ingredients brought over from their family's farm in Italia. At times they incorporate them into dishes (formaggi, vini di Basilicata, ecc.). The ingredients pose problems: a soemtimes decent supplier, Buon Italia in Chelsea Market, often has outdated produce (beans with expiration dates of more than a year) but fine Umbrian olive oil. One Sicilian butcher on Sullivan Street once obtained wild fennel from Sicily (for pasta con le sarde) which he kindly offered. I'm afraid the interest for the most genuine dishes, be they northern or southern, would be limited to this special group of chowhounds and intimidate the average diners' jaded palates.

      1. re: Giorgio

        Giogio, I completely agree with you. What we have in New York is the cuisine of the 21st Region--Newyorkevese. The "Northern Italian" restaurants are fallaciously describe the cuisine being offered. And why does the cuisine from Toscana said to be "Northern Cuisine"? I often joke with a restauranteur friend of mine who comes from a small town outside of Montecatini Terme that his "Tuscan" restaurant once a month should truly serve "Toscana" cuisine--ribollita, thick steaks grilled rare, cinghiali, pasta fagioli, pici con ragu di lepre, calamari in zimino, coniglio alla rosticciana, etc. He just laughs saying that what I really want is to put him out of business. By the way Giogio, could you recommend some of your favorite places in Napoli as I am hoping to be there in early November.